Jussi Adler-Olsen: I never underestimate my readers
A few years ago I watched a very good Danish crime film “The Keeper of Lost Causes”. I remember how the plot excited me, how impressed I was by its dynamism, the originality of the personae, and how I thought to myself, “This film is based on a book, there’s no way it can just be a brilliant scenario.” A year or so later, at a Christmas Book Fair, an amazing girl from Emas publishers recommended I read Jussi Adler-Olsen. “– Happy birthday, Merete Lynggaard. It’s your 32nd birthday today. You’ve already spent 126 days here. As a special present for you, we have decided not to put the lights out for the next year.” I had to read 1/3 of the “Mercy” before I realised I had seen the film; the story in the book itself is so much richer, more profound and original. At the following book fair the ladies from Emas and I discussed Jussi at some length. We talked about his ability to weave humor and psychology into his plots, his skill of building profound characters and villains, and his ability to construct unexpected twists and turns, and touch upon the social problems of the country. It is no accident that Special Department Q series is very popular not only in Denmark, but also around the world. Jussi’s books have been translated into more than 40 languages, and the author has received many international awards. I acquired the first 4 books in the series published in Bulgarian. I’ve bought the rest in English, and when they’re translated into Bulgarian, I shall get them as well. They are thrillers which my children will read very soon. They are novels which deserve pride of place in our family library and which I will pass on to friends and loved ones, only with a receipt. Jussi is yet another foreign author who has impressed me with his willingness. He gave me an interview and answered my questions within just a couple of days.
Special thanks to David Mossop for the English translation!
Jussi Adler-Olsen: “I keep trying to push myself to do better.”
An interview by Valentina Miziiska
Photo: Politikens Forlag
You grew up in a family of a successful psychiatrist, you studied medicine, sociology, film making. How come you became a writer?
I came to the point where I just had to try to write a book. It was in 1980 and I took 6 months off in order to write a book. The result was that I was confirmed in my view that I was indeed able to write a novel but it was not the right time in my life to start full time writing. That only came later and this first book will never be published. However, by 1995 I had reached the time when I was ready. By then I had saved up to be able to give writing full time a try.
How did you get inspired for the Q-series? Was it a case or a character the first sparkle?
I was contacted by someone from the Nordisk Film Company who wanted me to write a police series for television. There was no way I would do that, I would be too limited as police officers are always restricted by geography or types of crime. But the thought lingered and after a while I thought of a project with a police officer who nobody wanted and was placed out of the way in a cellar with the task of looking into hopeless cold cases.
Did you know the first novel would be a part of series? Did you know in the beginning you would reach so far?
Yes, right from the beginning I planned for it to become one very long book with a plot covering the individual stories of the main characters. It will be a book with ten „chapters“. Each individual „chapter“ can stand alone, but if you choose to read the entire series you will end up with the overall story (of approx. 4.500 pages) that I set out to write. During the complete book each individual character of the series has his/her own important function throughout.
Did you have the full picture of Carl’s character before you started writing the first book or he developed during time?
As mentioned I planned the series and wrote a very detailed synopsis from the very beginning. This included the entire story of the main characters. So yes, I knew Carl’s story from the very beginning. But having said that he has also developed during time, we have grown older and wiser together.
How much “you” is Carl Mørk?
Mr. Mørk (without the “c”) was a patient of my father’s. He had murdered his wife and was a psychiatric patient. As a 6-year old I knew him as a very kind man. In this way, I learnt at a very early stage that good and evil can easily be contained in one person. Carl is of course also partly me. One characteristic we share is a certain degree of laziness. I have always been embarrassed by this so I have always been quite diligent out of fear of indulging in my laziness. Basically, I envy Carl the ability to put his feet up and take a nap. As Carl, I find it easy to come up with creative ideas and we are both direct. We do not beat around the bush when having to get a message across. My experience has taught me that it makes lots of things easier to be honest, even when it is not welcome. Contrary to Carl I am diplomatic, but I envy him when he speaks plain truths directly to people.
How come you chose so grimy and unfriendly guy to be your lead character? Why you needed him like this – as unwelcome in life as good in his work?
Is he grimy? I don’t think so, but he is certainly a loner, who finds it difficult to relate closely to other people. To me a person like Carl Mørck shines with his blend of rebelliousness, great experience and ordinary human problems, and when a relatively ordinary man as he is, experiences different sorts of injustices, I for one can gloat over the heartfelt resentment that he expresses so well.
Does he exist to balance the humor in your novels or humor exists to balance the dark stories of yours?
Both Carl Mørck, the crime investigator, and his assistant Assad have a grim past. We get a certain feeling of that but not of exactly what or why, but with the ping pong humour between them we can meet any information about them later on without losing our affection for them and their personalities. Someone once said that the shortest distance between two people is a smile. It is not totally correct, but almost. The shortest distance between two people is laughter. With humour you can meet each other in any subject, so the humour is not only there to give the reader a little air in the compressed and scary story, but also to give a little time to reflect about ourselves and our surroundings, and that is a very important good form for ‘down-time’ in my opinion.
Assad on the contrary is very nice, friendly, a hard worker. Is he some “Jussi”?
Assad is not really me, I am much more like Carl. Assad is one of the key characters of the Department Q series. And he is both the one who can make this lazy, disillusioned and exhausted detective inspector Carl Mørck want to do his job again as well as the one who is a brilliant example of an immigrant, who is Carl’s equal, not least as regards education, and has no fear whatsoever of any clash of cultures. And then Assad has a lot of very dark secrets.
But Assad is so proactive, and Carl – so lazy. Wouldn’t it be easier to make Assad your lead – a nice immigrant detective, dealing against the evil with the help of lazy Carl?
To me they are both lead characters together with Rose. That Carl is the formal boss doesn’t necessarily mean that he is the one who makes the decisions. Their relationships change during the series, I have enjoyed that development.
Strong story, plot twists, authentic dialogue, deep characters, humor, psychology… It seems you know the formula for the good crime novel. What are the proportions in the recipe?
If I have a recipe it is never to underestimate my readers. They have often read more than you have yourself. At any rate, more than you think they have. Often, they are also cleverer than you think. And they see right through you if what you write is not credible. The reader is your only raison d’être if you want to get published, and you have to pamper them. It’s ungenerous if you don’t give the reader the best you’ve got as a writer. Try to make a synthesis between the way you write and what you wish the reader should get from your book, by reading your text. Otherwise, the project easily flutters all over and gets irrelevant.
Tell us about your writing process? How much research, plotting, writing and editing is behind each Q-story?
The key characters – Carl – Assad and Rose – have each their own story which will unfold during the series. I have a synopsis of each their story which will gradually unfold during the series. So those characters are created at this point. When it comes to each new book it has a plot for itself and the characters specific to each individual book are developed for each book. So, in those cases the plot comes first. Regarding research, it is very important to me, because if I am not careful and some detail is wrong I spoil the credibility of the entire novel. I try to do as much research at the beginning of the process, but of course I find that I need to check detail as the writing proceeds. Finally, when it comes to editing I edit all the time. When I hand over the script to my editor I have edited it at least ten times, parts of it even more. I keep trying to push myself to do better.
Do you have a writing routine?
I do not really have a routine as such. I do not block a certain time each day for writing, it could be any day and any time and it could be just 2 hours or 10 hours. But certain things are fixed – I have to sit by a clean desk and I always write wearing my father’s hat. And then music is very important to me. I have to listen to great music to write well.
Do you have the full picture in front of you (any post-it notes on a cork board or something else)?
As you know I work with synopses – both for the key characters and for the story I am working with. If I need some inspiration I do have a cork board with research and with sayings I have picked up. But actually I don’t use it very much.
Have you ever experienced unexpected plot changes/twists because of your characters’ decisions/actions/moods? Where any of them more logical?
Oh certainly, in fact I always look forward to the parts in my writing when I meet problems or even when I get stuck. Something in the text may not work or an issue has come up which needs to be though through again, because it doesn’t work. I thrive on that kind of challenge.
Do you use beta readers? Which opinion do you count on most?
The first person to read my work is always my wife. She is a brilliant reader and is especially good at spotting how my characterizations can be improved. I do also have a couple of beta readers, but only as consultants. They are typically specialists e.g. retired police officers, who can help me make sure that my research in their field has been correct.
How many manuscript revisions does an experienced writer as you make? Are they getting less with each book?
Through the writing process, which takes a minimum of 6-8 months, I go back and rewrites passages again and again. Once I feel I am ready to show my work to my wife, I have often re-written the novel 6-8 times. At this point every comment my wife makes is put into yet another rewrite. Now comes the time for a few carefully selected consultants to read it and they get back with their comments which may go into one more rewrite. And it is only after this that my editor gets the script. And she often has as many as 5 comments per page. Which of course means one more rewrite. Only now I let go and leave it to the publisher for proofreading etc.
Which authors inspire you? What do you read in your spare time?
All the classical ones like Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens and even Alistair MacLean and Fredrick Forsyth. But also I must pay my respects to the great team of crime and thriller writers in Scandinavia Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö who wrote their brilliant novels in the 1970’ies. I think all Scandinavian crime and thriller authors owe a lot of their inspiration to these two authors. The strongest point of their authorship was their unique dialogue and the fine and delicate mixture of social and political topics within a thriller plot. Right now I do not have much time to read anything other than research for my next novel.
What’s your current project?
I have committed myself to completing this series about Department Q. So far, I have written 7 volumes – or chapters as I like to say – because even though each novel can be read as a stand-alone it is my intention that when the entire series is complete it can also be read as one very long novel about Carl and Assad and Hardy and what kind of personalities they really are. For now my project is to complete this series.
What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
I must admit that I have never really paid attention to other people’s advice but rather experimented on what worked for me and gradually I have developed my own way to work.
What’s your advice for aspiring Bulgarian writers who read bgstoryteller.co?
It is difficult to give advice, each author has his/her own way to go about it. But it there is a key: it is to pay very careful attention to the language. If your novel is well written you are well on the way.
Here are some links where you can find more about Jussi: